A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley has filed a patent application covering “biobots.” The tiny (100 to 300 nanometers) biologically-derived robots are touted as being useful for defense, energy, medical, and consumer electronics applications.
According to the team’s patent application, biobots “can be remotely controlled, e.g., by signaling with light, and programmed to perform a variety of synthesis, assembly, repair, and monitoring tasks.”
“Outwardly they’ll consist of enclosures resembling cell walls or viral capsids,” explains Jan T. Liphardt, director of the U.C. Berkeley’s Liphardt laboratory, which is conducting biobot research.
According to Liphardt, a relatively crude biobot could be created by modifying a lipid vesicle (liposome) to follow light or chemical gradients.
One biobot application example is the clean-up of toxic spills. “They could detect and identify specific hazardous chemicals, track down the extent of contamination, and internally manufacture whatever was needed to clean up the mess — all with one trip to the site,” according to Liphardt (source).
The team’s 2008 patent application claims biobots are capable of emulating the behavior of microbes, including “moving through viscous environments, tracking chemical gradients, producing proteins, and synthesizing small molecules.” Furthermore, they “can be frozen and thawed with little loss of activity, and have lifetimes of 24 hours or more. In some embodiments, the biobots are inherently safe since they contain no genome (or a limited ‘minigenome’) and cannot self-replicate.”
Biobots satisfy a need for “controllable microscopic entities capable of performing tasks at resolutions of millimeters to microns,” the team concludes.